Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I don't know how that book made it there. I lived in that cold, dank town for three years. I can't tell you enough how cold and snow covered it gets there from November to March. Brrrr.

My New York Reference Library

Here's a picture of my slowly growing library of New York and Staten Island books. It's a collection of big easily obtained things like Robert Caro's "The Power Broker" and "The Encyclopedia of New York City" as well as harder to find books like Dorothy Valentine Smith's classic "Staten Island; Gateway to New York" and Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul's The Abuse of Power: The Permanent Government and the Fall of New York"" (it's the broken up one on the left without a spine. I found it in the often cool but more than a little creepy 'Everything Goes' store on Bay Street).

There are some excellent books about the Dutch and English settlement of the area that I bought for my dad and have now transferred to my collection. I also have most of the commercially available books about the Island (except "The Jewish Community of Staten Island" which I need for some great synagogue and Jersey Street pictures) There are a few gems about Staten Island that I'd love to get but don't seem to be available at even ridiculous prices. The best is Staten Island and It's People: A History, 1609-1929" by Leng and Davis". For those I'll have to rely on the College of Staten Island's Staten Island Archive located in the school's library.

I used to keep the shelf in pretty good order (by subject then alpha by author), but with all the work I've been doing lately I just pull things down and put them back up at random. There's really no excuse, but heh, what am I going to do?

My cluttered, sloppy work place. Inexcusable.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Staten Island Hospital

I, and most of my friends growing up, were born at the original Staten Island Hospital on Castleton Avenue at the head of Cebra Avenue. For most of my childhood it stood there, staff and patients flowing in and out, using the florists and gift stores that graced the nearby intersection of Cebra and Victory Boulevard. When Jim D. hit my five year old forehead with a rock it's where I was brought kicking and screaming to get stitches. Later I went to study for my dentistry merit badge in the offices in the back of the complex.

I understand the need to build a big, modern facility as the Island grew but I was disappointed when Staten Island Hospital moved to Seaview Avenue in Ocean Breeze. No one knew what was going to happen to the complex of buildings on Castleton Avenue but they would be empty for at least a little while. Of course my friends and I decided at once to figure out how to get inside them and explore.

When the old hospital first closed there was a guard house built at the front door, so Bruce N., Jesse B., and I simply went around back. We found a hole in the fence by the driveway on the complex's side on Webster Avenue. We looked for open windows and after half and hour or so of skulking around we found one. We had to climb up to get to it and then drop down several feet once inside the building. The three of us found ourselves in a small, non-descript office that had been stripped of all furniture. A few scattered papers lay on the floor but nothing indicated what it had once been.

We decided to carefully make our way into the rest of the hospital. Fortunately we were being very cautious and quiet. As we entered the hallway we heard the very distinctive sound of dog's claws on the linoleum. Fear exploded in us at once and we made ran back into the room. Jesse was little (he was ten at the time) so we boosted him up and out. Then Bruce climbed up and then he helped me up. We ran as fast as we could out the driveway and caught our breaths. When we walked back around onto Castleton Avenue we looked at the guard house and realized there was some sort of cage around the front door. Guard dogs were being allowed to patrol the building at will and we'd almost been caught.

That incident kept us away from the building for several months. The next time we went back was over Easter break. This time Jim D. came with us. We decided not to go into the buildings but just explore around the back. Behind the main buildings on Castleton Avenue were a series of auxiliary buildings and clinics. We found the generators in fine working condition along with piles of packages of sutures and needles. They were just lying on the ground and we helped ourselves to them. I don't know why and they served no purpose except, perhaps, as trophies of our expedition.

After that decided to make a climb up the fire escape that ran up the back of the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary, the heart of the old buildings on Castleton. We made our way up the stairs trying to keep as quiet as possible. It didn't make us invisible. Half way up to the third floor we heard an amplified voice yelling at us to "Get down from there!" We obliged and were down and out the hole in the fence in nothing flat. Again we stayed away for months.

We did keep an eye on the place, looking for any changes. Eventually we noticed that the dog cage was gone. We went around back again but the window was sealed. We came back a few hours later with a homemade grappling hook hoping to get up on the back of a low roofed part of the newer hospital building. It didn't work and we didn't get in.


Again we kept our eyes on the place and soon there weren't anymore guards. The buildings, a little more than a year after closing, had simply been abandoned. It was the time for a full on expedition. On Columbus Day 1980 we took the chance and snuck into the old Staten Island Hospital.

The party consisted of me, Jim D., Jesse B. and Alex R., the same group that would go into the Silver Lake Reservoir some months later. We had flashlights, ropes, pocket knives and matches. I can't imagine what anyone seeing us walk over Cebra Avenue to Castleton would have thought of us but no one so much as glanced at us.

We started by going around back like in all our other efforts. We made sure no cars were on Webster and went through the fence hole. We were hoping we could find an open door or at least a window we could break without being seen. We found a door pretty quickly and were soon in the building. We decided to just wander around and eventually make our way to the roof of the new building. Alex. R.'s would be our guide as he knew his way around the place. His father was a medical person and had worked in the place for years before it closed.

We wandered around the first floor for some time just seeing what was to be seen. It was obvious that anything left behind by the hospital move had since been stolen if it had any value. Copper wire and light fixtures had been ripped out and removed. Door knobs, switch panels and sink fixtures were all gone. That hadn't been the case a few months earlier. It also meant that people other than us had been watching for changes in the security arrangements. It meant we had to be cautious.

Alex decided to take us into the older buildings. He said there was an underground passage in the basement that would be cool to use. We went down stairs, flashlights casting thin illumination into the tunnel's utter blackness, and started walking. When Alex started telling us that the tunnel was for moving bodies around I admit I just wanted to get out back into the light. A few minutes later we were.

The old buildings were in the same shape as the new one. They'd been stripped bare of anything that could be sold or reused. It was a little sad and astonishing to realize. I had heard about the Bronx burning and being abandoned a few years earlier but that was something in the news. Besides, the Bronx were a faraway place that meant nothing to me other than the zoo. How had this happened? It was no small undertaking to clear out the buildings like they'd been, so where had the police been? Didn't the Staten Island Hospital care?

We decided it was time to head to the roof. We went back to the new building (not through the tunnel) and found a staircase. We made our way upward, occasionally getting out and exploring a few rooms before continuing our climb. We were on one of the upper floors when we saw the light.

We'd come out onto the floor from the stairs and found ourselves in fairly dark surroundings. Some of the floors were well lit because the doors to the rooms were open. That wasn't the case on this floor so we brought out our flashlights. We were looking around when Jim said "Stop." He thought heard something from the end of the hall we were in and wanted to listen. Suddenly we saw the clear light of cigarette light flame. We didn't hear anything or see anything else. The four of us froze for a second or two and then ran all the way down the stairs and out the driveway. It was the last time we went into the hospital.

We speculated about what it was. In the end we decided it was one of what were probably lots of bums living in the buildings. It was no longer safe and we would never go back.

Over the years the buildings have fallen into deeper and deeper decay. There was plan in the mid-eighties to turn them into condos but that was a money laundering scheme that left dozens of tenants ripped off and in debt. Over the years a few con men set themselves as the rightful owners and let people rent the apartments from them but they were eventually evicted by the city and the lower floors of the buildings sealed with cement.

Later the back buildings were crushed by snow on their rotting roofs and the city pulled them down. Their outlines remain in the aerial shots on Google Earth. Now the large old buildings, the Samuel R. Smith Infirmary and the Nursing Building are rotting away and falling down. The city refused to landmark them in 1983, said though they'd like to in 1987 they couldn't, and finally has just left them to melt into the ground.

Stolen from someone's flickr page (above)

It's in the trees - it's coming (above)

The cheesy castle roof was added during the condo scheme (above)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston, RIP

First Richard Widmark,now Charlton Heston. If you think you know Heston's work just by some of his duller, stolider performances, check out "The Big Country", "Will Penny" or "Treasure Island". The man might have been limited but he's one of the last great iconic Hollywood superstars. I miss actors and actresses who not only brought themselves to the screen but I actually liked that self.

He got grief from some of the dopier elements for his conservative politics, but this was a man who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1963 march on Washington. I'd like to see somebody today take that sort of career risk, by which mean I'd be very happy.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

New Projects

While I'm hoping to put together something about the old Staten Island Hospital this week, I'm working on two larger projects. The first will be about the secret architectural history of the North Shore of Staten Island and the second about its plethora of old churches.

The secret history project is about all the beautiful homes that once lined the North Shore's tree lined streets. I always knew there had been big mansions and estates but only as I've been going through books and archives have I started to get a sense of all the other buildings that have been lost over the decades. On as regular a basis as I can manage I'll add a picture or two with commentary when able.

This is where the St. George Municipal Parking Lot now sits. If you look closely at the picture's center you can make out the cupola on the house that's in present day picture of St. Mark's Place. I count at least ten large homes where the lot is today and the picture only shows its upper half.

My plan is to collect historical pictures of some of these buildings and get as many of the few remaining ones with my camera. The hard part will be tracking down histories of the houses but I will try.

The church project is a whole different thing. Staten Island has a long history of Christian denominational diversity. Some of it was based on theological differences and some on ethnicity. At one point there where half a dozen German, Norwegian and Swedish Lutheran congregations, as well as Episcopal and Methodist churches (with missions to the immigrant groups), and Baptist, Dutch Reform, Presbyterian and, of course, Roman Catholics.

Over the years, as populations shifted (to New Jersey) and the strength of the old Protestant denominations waned many of the older churches were sold to different denominations. I used to think this was a new phenomenon but my research has already disabused me of this idea. People were always moving away while others were moving in. During the great immigration periods around the beginning of the twentieth century this happened all over Staten Island. The same sort of thing has been happening again for the last thirty years.

My obsession with the North Shore's churches started when I discovered this beautiful old building on Delafield Avenue. At the time it was an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva but I didn't know anything about its history.

Since then I've learned quite a bit (it was the Elizabeth Methodist Episcopal Church and its congregation merged with Grace Methodist's in the sixties and formed Faith United in Port Richmond. The building was sold to a Jewish shul and later a yeshiva. Now it's abandoned) and it's only left me wanting to know more. So the project was conceived. With luck and work it should be done sometime this fall, though I suspect it will always be undergoing updates and revisions. There are about sixty churches I've discovered that I want to get exterior, interior and historical pictures of as well as historical data.

I plan to start with the Port Richmond Reformed Church as it's the oldest congregation on the North Shore and exists pretty much today as it looks in this old picture. It's surrounded by a graveyard with seventeenth century headstones in it which I remember reading when I went to Port Richmond when I was a little kid.

From there I plan to move on to the dozen or so churches that have changed congregations and denominations, or in the case of a few, face demolition. After that I'll get to the rest. Each building and congregation has its own history that I want to collect in a single place.

As a Lutheran I'm interested in how other Christians worship and what things they surround themselves with in terms of buildings and interior appointments. As a Staten Islander and historian I'm fascinated with the borough's shifting populations, demographics and development. Hopefully I'll convince other people that it's equally intriguing. If not you'll at least have, hopefully, dozens of very cool pictures to look at.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Sorry - Here's the New Pictures

So I promised pictures and I didn't deliver right away. I apologize.

I have a few bigger projects connected with this site percolating right now and they, plus work, plus wedding have led to distractions. I did manage to drive around and collect some cool pictures but I failed to get them up in a timely fashion. Let's go.

This is the intersection of Port Richmond Avenue and Richmond Terrace in, naturally, Port Richmond. Once the commercial center of the western side of the North Shore, the neighborhood fell on hard times with the opening of Forest Avenue Shoppers' Town in the sixties and died with the opening of the Staten Island Mall in the mid-seventies. It struggled on for years, trying unsuccessfully to reinvent itself as a location for furniture dealers. When that failed it became a neighborhood for Mexican immigrants, legal and otherwise.

Now on a typical morning you can see dozens of men shaping up to bust their humps for inadequate pay. The old Jewish and Italian owned shops have mostly been replaced with dollar stores and Mexican delis. The old apartment buildings and apartments over all the stores are now packed to the gills with far too many people to be safe for their inhabitants.

I first noticed this particular building when I took to biking along the Terrace to get to the Bayonne Bridge. At the time it looked like it probably did at the turn of the last century. It was built by a local industrialist and by the eighties had become a residence for older, single men.

Since then, about 1982, several of the buildings on the left have burned down and the whole area has fallen down the tubes. I think the building on the right was still open as a bank, but now, after a fleeting time as evangelical church it's abandoned.
I wasn't able to get the exact same perspective as the original picture because there are buildings on the spot the original must have been taken from.

When I first saw the picture of St. Mark's Place in St. George from the 30's I thought I recognized the turreted home on the left. When I went to get the comparison shot I was disabused of that notion. Nothing in the old picture exists anymore except part of the stone retaining wall. The beautiful homes and the small stores are all gone, replaced by some of the ugliest buildings on the Island. The original Brighton Heights Dutch Reform Church, built in the 1820's, burned down in 1996 during a renovation project gone awry when heat guns went wild.

I've also added a picture cribbed from Staten Island historian, Thomas Matteo's book, "Then & Now Staten Island". It's a closer look at the church and the pretty brick home next to it that's tantalizingly unclear in the first picture. Today its lot holds an ugly little building that used to house a Manufacturer's Hanover bank, then a church and now, nothing, I think. Ah, architectural progress. Can it get any better?

I have no specific knowledge of the Stork's Nest or the Stork's Nest II. It's one of those neighborhood bars that I've seen from the bus all my life, but not living in the exact neighborhood (Tompkinsville) never really knew anything about or anyone who went there.

At some time in the past it was obviously some sort of big deal. Now it's subdivided and the ornamental stork has long flow the nest. It's a little hard to tell from the present day picture (the park across the street from where I'd need to be to get a matching shot is fenced off for renovations), but the left side of the original Stork is now a Central American restaurant.

When I was little, Tompkinsville was heavily Italian with some black families starting to move in. Later the older Italians died off and their kids moved out of the area. At some point a lot of the clientele of the methadone clinic in Stapleton seemed to be living in the old apartments above the stores in the area.

In the nineties the neighborhood changed again. Like in Port Richmond there was a sudden influx of immigrants of both legal and illegal status. Many of them are from Honduras, Guatemala and the rest of Central America. Over the years their presence has led to the establishment of shops geared towards their tastes and wants. This is one of those places.